Digital Camera How-To: The Secrets of Shooting Sunsets

This story is taken from “Exploring Digital Photography” (Element K Journals). readers can subscribe to Element K Journals at a discount. Click here to learn more.

There’s something about a sunset that makes you want to reach for your camera. Perhaps it’s the wide range of warm colors and tones, the dramatic silhouettes of clouds and objects, or the serenity of the slowly fading sun. A photograph of a sunset defines a unique moment that only existed as that image was captured. While many sunset pictures may look similar, no two are exactly alike. But there are a few tricks you can learn to make sure your sunset shots come out stunning and not so cliché. These tricks will also help you respond to some of the unique challenges faced when shooting a sunset with a digital camera.

Capturing the Moment
Shooting sunsets isn’t hard, but there are a number of tricks you can use to make your shots better. We’re going to give you a rundown of shooting a sunset, starting with a primer on the physics behind a good-looking sunset. Next, we’ll discuss framing your image to emphasize your primary subject and how to use other objects in your scene to improve image composition. Then, we’ll tell you how to set up your camera to adjust to the ever-shifting light and colors of the setting sun. As we said, shooting sunsets isn’t hard, but there are definitely a few tricks you should have up your sleeve before you point and shoot.

The Science of Sunsets
As light passes through our atmosphere, it’s broken up in a process known as Rayleigh scattering. When light comes through from directly overhead, the gas molecules in the atmosphere reflect the blue end (shortest wavelength) of the visible spectrum best. When the sun isn’t directly overhead, such as when it’s near the horizon during a sunset, the light must pass through more of the atmosphere, scattering out most of the blue light. This leaves the warm tones of red, orange, and yellow, which happen to be the longest wavelengths.

With the scattering of light through gas molecules providing the color foundation, airborne particles give a sunset its zing. While the increase in air pollution is certainly lamentable, the added particulate matter in the atmosphere from smoke and smog means more light from the blue spectrum is scattered away, intensifying the red colors of a sunset. Water vapor from humidity has the same effect, as a hot, sticky summer night is more likely to produce a vibrant sunset than a cool, dry evening.

While you don’t want to encourage pollution in the air, understanding your location and at-mospheric conditions can help you determine if this evening’s sunset is going to be a rare display. A good sunset may pop up under any circumstance, but if you can find a hot, humid night with low wind and a location that’s close to a city or desert (dust from the sand does a great job scattering light), you have the best chance to get a great shot.

Composing Your Shot
A sunset isn’t going to wait around for you to get set up, so preparing your shot before the sunset starts is the key. Arriving a half-hour or so before the show starts gives you enough time to take full advantage of the sun’s rays as they change from minute to minute. Of course, a tripod will help you maintain your framing and keep your shot steady.

Finding the right spot. When selecting a location from which to shoot, keep in mind that your hero in this shot is the sunset, not other elements in the scene. For that reason, position yourself to allow an unrestricted view of the sun. This may be a beach, a cliff’s edge, or at the edge of a lake — the important thing is that your view of the sky isn’t obstructed, as shown in figure 1. If this isn’t an option, position yourself so you can see the maximum amount of the horizon and reduce the prominence of distracting elements.

Figure 1: Keeping your horizon line uncluttered emphasizes the sun and the sky.

Setting the scene. Now that your camera position is set up, the next item of concern is framing your sunset. Follow the rule of thirds in this situation — keep the horizon level low and fill your shot with the sky. Keeping some of the darker foreground in your shot helps emphasize the sky, adds greater in-terest, and sets the scene for your shot. Consider adding other elements such as birds, trees, etc. to your shot, creating interesting silhouetted figures. Of course, most great sunset shots include a cloud or two, so if you’re lucky enough to have some low clouds, use them to your benefit, as in the shot shown in figure 2.

Figure 2: In this shot, low clouds contrast against the saturated colors in the sky.

Note: When preparing your shot, avoid looking directly at the sun, whether with the naked eye or through your viewfinder. This can cause serious eye injury. Using your digital camera’s LCD panel to frame your shot is much safer and usually gives you more accurate framing.

Prepping your Digital Camera Settings
Sunsets are typically a low-light situation. While dealing with low-light levels with digital cameras is challenging enough, you’re up against a steady decline of available light as the sun fades away. Your exposure settings and your image sensor’s sensitivity to light (ISO) are your best defense in these varying light conditions, but there are other factors to consider as well. Next, we’ll show you how to use your digital camera’s settings to conquer these challenges.

Making the most out of low light. Many digital cameras have exposure compensation, but most don’t come near the range of settings available on a traditional SLR camera. So, metering your sunset is certainly the most professional way to shoot, but perhaps not the most practical considering the limitations of current digital setups. Plus, to get the most accurate reading, you’d have to meter every few minutes as the sun sinks toward the horizon. For these reasons, we recommend using your camera’s internal light meter to evaluate the scene, then bracketing up and down one stop. Since we’re talking digital here, you aren’t wasting film. You’ll just be giving yourself the best chance to get the correct exposure in a challenging lighting situation. We’ve shown the results of a three-shot bracket in figure 3. For more information on bracketing, read “Digital Camera How-To: Exposure Bracketing.”

Figure 3: Since the light rapidly changes as the sun descends, a good option is to bracket your shots for different exposure settings.

Note:Underexposing your shots often makes the colors in your scene richer.

The next consideration in low-light situations is setting your image sensor’s sensitivity to light, achieved by adjusting your camera’s ISO settings. Keep these settings low (ISO 100 and 200), as higher ISO settings can encourage pixelated noise in your image. While setting your ISO low will make the shutter stay open longer, the visible noise in the shot will be greatly re-duced by the less-sensitive image sensor.

Other camera settings. Since your subject isn’t anywhere near you and really isn’t going anywhere fast, it’s a good idea to set your focus to a center-weighted setting. If you have the ability to set focus, set it to Infinity to keep the sun and horizon line in focus. Don’t worry about your foreground objects; they’ll just be silhouettes anyway. If you have an auto-focus camera, it’s most likely to select Infinity anyway, so don’t worry too much about it.

While the clarity of your foreground subjects isn’t that important, keeping them silhouetted against the background is essential. So turn off your flash already! Unless illuminating the foreground objects is your goal, the light from the flash is just going to get swallowed up by the sky, or your foreground objects are going to light up and detract from your subject.

Timing Is Everything
Now that you’ve set your camera and framed your shot, it’s time to shoot. Hopefully, you’ve loaded up your highest capacity memory card because the best technique is to click away. The light in the sky and your natural elements, such as clouds and water, are going to change rapidly during the sunset, so continue to fire that shutter. Keep in mind that many of the best sunset shots don’t even include the sun, so stick around a few minutes once it slips below the horizon and the sky begins to glow, as shown in figure 4.

Figure 4: A good sunset image doesn’t always feature the sun.

Going, Going … Gone
There’s no big secret to getting great sunset shots, but by selecting a good location to shoot from and adjusting your digital camera to best respond to the changing light conditions, you’ll be ready for whatever the sun has in store for you. So hope for dramatic skies and shoot away — whether you’re beachside or on the city streets, the perfect sunset shot is well within your reach.

This story is taken from “Exploring Digital Photography” (Element K Journals). readers can subscribe to Element K Journals at a discount. Click here to learn more.


Posted on: November 1, 2002

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